I hesitated very much to write this post but it must be done. Last week I was visiting the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusets in the United States. I went on a week-long trip with a dear friend of mine. She was kind enough to introduce me to the rich culture hidden in this beautiful part of the county Besides enjoying the pretty scenery with its villages set in hills covered with forests, we made it a point to visit the many museums in the area. During our time there a couple of dreadful things were reported in the news. One was the college shooting in Oregon and the other was the bombing of the MSF hospital in Afghanistan.
The last museum we visited was the Norman Rockwell museum. He was, of course, the very talented illustrator who created some of the most iconic images of American life. He did very lifelike portraits of President Eisenhower and President Kennedy as well of other leaders like Nehru and Nasser. We learnd a lot about his technique of using photographs and his meticulous methods. He created four wonderful ideological paintings to illustrate what became known as “The four freedoms”. They are: freedom of speech and expression, freedom from want, freedom from fear and freedom of worship. These paintings were taken to the UN recently and Pope Francis was photographed next to them.
Many of the subjects of the Norman Rockwell paintings are inspirational. I found myself tearing up when I looked at some of them, such as the famous depiction of a friendly cop sitting on a stool at a lunch counter, gently observing a little boy who has a cloth-wrapped bundle indicating that he is running away from home. For me the face of the soda jerk carried such experience, such gentle cynicism, that I think he is the focus of the study.
My problem is that cynicism can no longer be gentle. How I would love to believe in that colourful world of practical jokes, of Santa Clause, of dutiful marshals escorting a lone black child to school. The USA depicted by Norman Rockwell is a utopia. That marshals have to escort a student indicates that there are grave problems, social injustices, conflicts, but somehow, there is faith too that some good spirit in America will struggle with the problems and that right will prevail. His depictions of childhood and young love have none of the anxiety and violence that pervade the lives of youngsters today.
How are we doing on those freedoms, by the way? Decades after the paintings were executed I wonder if more citizens of the world are “free” in the ways shown. Are cops today viewed as caring “uncle” figures? Is the server behind the counter an “alien”,fearing deportation, struggling to form a union so that he can earn $15 an hour? Those GI’s depicted with such humor and affection, do they today suffer from post-traumatic stress or do they believe collatoral damage is just part of the ” stuff” that happens? Make no mistake, I admire the United States, it’s people, its natural beauty, its great wealth so often put to good, to great purpose.. I long to cling to that ideal of Western civilization that can shine forth in the United States…..and yet…..as we wandered in Williams College in the shadow of the Oregon tragedy, I wondered how safe I was. Why not there and at that moment?
The illustrations of Norman Rockwell are a sort of monument to a dream; a dream of a safe, sober society where everything is somehow going to be OK. I fear we have awoken to a nightmare
It is easy to blame The United States for all things going wrong. The entire world is filled with injustice, suffering, unspeakable cruelties to mankind. We are truly not safe anywhere. Norman Rockwell’s art is indeed a monument to a dream, a dream that still lives on in what you call a nightmare. The individuals, citizens iin different position in this nation, are still fighting and struggling to live up to this dream. But because of the hard won freedom that this nation lives under, and because free will, also hard won, is the right of its citizens, there are as many trying to destroy this dream. And this will not stop. No laws can keep evil from finding its way. But we battle on, do not lose hope and instead of pointing fingers at a nation that continues to fight for peace, social justice and free will, we too try to help in our own quiet way, one hesitant step at a time, to help in keeping alive all the dreams that we believe in.
I don’t think I expressed blame that all things going wrong were the fault of the United States. I was trying to express the feeling of dissonance I had looking at the beautiful illustrations of what is an ideal and the reality that surrounds me I see my perceptions as less a them vs us scenario and more a responsibility to recognize the complexities – of modern Western life. I am not pointing fingers and I hope you will attend to the real admiration and affection for the United States that I expressed in my piece. Yes, we battle on. Part of the battle is looking attentively at reality – the laws we are prepared to pass, or not pass to thwart evil and promote good. This was something simply written as a reaction to Norman Rockwell’s vision of America.